Climbing walls for the team is nothing new to Ray Wright. His game-saving catch as an outfielder helped LSU win the College World Series in 2002. The Tigers won by one run, thanks in large part to the two-run home run he took away that day.
Now Wright trains other athletes who go over the wall. As the strength and conditioning coach at Richard Childress Racing, he trains the pit crew, which has trimmed a full second off its average pit stop time thanks in large part to Wright's demanding regimen.
"It's kind of a whole new ballgame for them," said Wright, who knows the feeling. "We use traditional [weight] lifting in a new format. We use stopwatches. That weight room is kind of like a laboratory to me. We try different things and everything is monitored and written down."
The subjects in Wright's lab don't come out looking like bulked-up superheroes, but rather like a well-oiled machine, one whose parts don't bog down when depended upon most.
"The results I most want to see in them you can't see in a mirror," Wright said. "I want them breaking down mental barriers. You can really exploit weakness in the gym. When you see yourself succeed in ways you never thought you'd see yourself succeed, it pays off on the track. When you climb over that wall, you're going to say to yourself 'I've conquered something a lot harder than this.' "
To simulate the sometimes brutal heat at the tracks, Wright turns up the heat in the gym. To mimic the physical requirements that each pit stop brings, he gets their heartbeats up and then has them lift weights, sand bags or even tires.
"We try to implement what they do on pit road into their training," says Wright. "Your fine motor skills begin to diminish at about 140 heart beats per minute. When you're waiting for that car coming into the pits, your heart rate's going to go up. Fine motor skills are essential to their jobs, so we'll get their heart rate up real high, then put them through drills.
"Richard [Childress] has put a lot of money into this weight room, and for good reason. Fatigue is dangerous on pit road, and flexibility prevents injury. These guys grew up in garages. All this stuff is really new to them."
It's almost old hat for Wright, who found yet another unorthodox way into the sport of NASCAR. Running a strength, conditioning and agility business in Maryland, he decided to move to North Carolina, where his wife had grown up.
He got a job as the baseball/strength and conditioning coach at Forsyth Country Day high school. Two students there, Austin and Ty Dillon, had a father [Mike] who was the vice president at Richard Childress Racing. Their grandfather? Childress himself.
When they decided to hire a new strength and conditioning coach, Wright was in the right place at the right time. Now he not only keeps track of the pit crew guys' training, but their daily caloric intake, stress levels and sleep habits as well. On race days he records the pit stops and reviews them, but his bread is buttered back at the shop.
He says being a friend isn't in his job description.
"I get on these guys a lot," says Wright. "So seeing the results and the new attitudes means a lot. The most rewarding part of the job is seeing where these guys are compared to where they were when we started. It's a new lifestyle for them now, and that's a great feeling for me."